Saturday's semifinal round at the 2009 Horizon League Volleyball Championship featured four teams determined to extend their season by at least one more match. In the tournament atmosphere few things go as planned, and winning takes a whole lot of desire, intensity, and guts. And, as Jaclyn told you yesterday, seeds aren't everything when it comes to a game like volleyball...where energy and enthusiasm can go a long, LONG way.
The regular-season champ, Cleveland State, got things started on Saturday afternoon. Woodling Gymnasium was just as I remembered it last season when the league tournament was held here, and the Vikings had to fight their way to the title match as the #6-seed. It doesn't matter whether CSU is the favorite or the underdog, the music is always loud, and the fans always turn out. Heck, they even brought out the pep band for Saturday's semifinal against the #5-seed, UIC.
Cleveland State imposed their will early, jumping out to a 9-2 lead before eventually cruising to a 25-11 first set victory. Most in attendance probably expected CSU to continue dominating, but UIC wasn't interested in rolling over. They'd come too far, and had eyes for claiming their first-ever league title. The second set did, in fact, belong to the Flames, 25-19. Tied 1-1 at intermission, UIC's ability to bounce back had Cleveland State head coach Chuck Voss a bit rattled.
Set number three proved to be the most entertaining, as both squads fully understood how crucial it would be in determining the victor. With Cleveland State leading 10-9, the Vikings made a decisive 7-2 run, extended their lead to 17-11, and eventually pulled away for a 25-18 victory. The fourth set looked eerily similar to the first, and with a 25-14 decision, Cleveland State was moving on to the tournament title match for the third consecutive year.
It's impossible to overlook how many heavy hitters the Vikings have on their roster. Personally, I enjoy watching Liz Fazio, at just 5'9", windup and smash balls into the floor. When she's in rhythm, she's a force. But the two players who command everyone's attention, both on the floor and off, are Amy Benz and Beth Greulich. They combined for 28 kills against UIC, and only committed five errors in 52 attempts. Not too shabby. Earlier this week, Greulich was named the league's Player of the Year, and with the way she's performed lately, I had to ask coach Voss if he thought she was playing the best volleyball of her career.
As for Greulich herself, she's confident in her own play, and confident about their chances in Sunday's championship match.
The second match of the evening featured the tournament's #2-seed, Valparaiso, and the #3-seed, Milwaukee. The Panthers, frankly, were pretty fortunate to be around for Saturday's semifinals...as they were nearly upset by Green Bay Friday night in their quarterfinal match with Green Bay. It was clear from the outset, however, that Susie Johnson had her team focused on not letting this opportunity pass them by.
It was like watching a different team as Milwaukee jumped out to an 8-2 lead in the first set, and rolled to a 25-14 decision. Milwaukee's Natalie Schmitting made her presence known throughout the set, assisting on four big blocks, on her way to a total of 11 for the match. Set number two was a battle from start to finish. Seven ties and four lead changes later, Milwaukee had again bested the Crusaders...this time, 26-24. It was easy to see where the Crusaders' were struggling, as Angie PorchÃ© didn't notch her first kill until the 15th point of the set. With so few opportunities, I had to believe Milwaukee's game plan was to shut down PorchÃ© at all costs, and asked coach Johnson after the match if that was the case.
As the third set got underway the Crusaders proved that they belonged in the match, scoring the first five points of the set, and storming out to a 19-10 lead. At that point, it almost as if someone flipped Valpo's switch to the "off" position. That, or Milwaukee decided to turn their game back "on." 12 points later, the Panthers had a 22-19 advantage and went on to take the set, 25-23. Just like that, the match was over. The Crusaders were done, and Milwaukee had earned the right to compete for their sixth Horizon League volleyball title.
The Panthers were challenged by coach Johnson to take more risks in today's match, to not play it safe. Jena Berg, who finished with nine kills and 10 digs, felt like that message was a big reason for their success in the semifinals.
At one point this season, Milwaukee was just 2-6 in Horizon League play, but rebounded to win their last eight league matches. With the two wins in the league tournament, that makes 10-consecutive victories for the Panthers, clearly the hottest team in the league at this point. As bleak as things looked for UWM back in early October, I had to ask coach Johnson if she truly thought her team would be competing for another league title.
So we're down to two in the 2009 Horizon League Volleyball Championship. Those left behind (UIC, Valparaiso) will have to wait until next year to try and win their first ever volleyball title. Meanwhile, those left standing find themselves in a very familiar position. Last season it was these same two teams, on this same floor, battling for the league title. Milwaukee got the best of Cleveland State that day, and got the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Will we see the same scenario play out on Sunday? You're guess is as good as mine, but we can watch it all unfold LIVE on HLN at 1pm ET.